In what was certainly among the last verdicts for Nazi crimes against humanity, the 94-year-old “Accountant of Auschwitz” on Wednesday was sentenced to four years in German prison for his role in the deaths of 300,000 Hungarian Jews.
The sentence – about seven minutes for each of the victims – handed to Oskar Groening raised the difficult question of whether justice can ever be done for the mass murders of the Holocaust, whose victims numbered 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables,” including Gypsies, gays and political dissidents.
German historian Michael Wolffsohn, a professor at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, suggested that nothing short of the biblical “mark of Cain” was a sufficient punishment.
“Four years for 300,000 persons killed,” he wrote in an email. “Ridiculous. There is no legal way to cope with these crimes.”
But Efraim Zuroff, director and head Nazi hunter for the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, disputed such reasoning, arguing that Groening’s case makes clear that anyone involved in the Holocaust can be held to account.
“This is an incredibly important case,” he said. “Groening was the first example of someone not physically involved in murder to be convicted. Now this means that anybody who worked at the camps, whatever their role, can be brought to court at least to face charges of accessory.”
Don’t be fooled: This is not the last Nazi trial. . . . There will be others.
Efraim Zuroff, Simon Wiesenthal Center
It is a searing message in a nation where many people whose work helped the Nazi death machine function simply went back to their lives at the end of the war.
Groening’s three-and-a-half-month trial, said Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, “allows a more comprehensive look at Holocaust murders.” It also offers a lesson to younger generations that “every individual is in the end responsible for upholding the basic ethics and values that are the foundation of our civilization.”
Groening was the rarest of accused Nazis. From the first day, he accepted at least “moral guilt” for his role at Auschwitz. He did not kill, but he kept track of the wealth the condemned brought with them to the camp. He even boxed up the stolen cash and brought it to Berlin to swell Nazi coffers.
Prosecutors noted that while he didn’t pull a trigger, he did make mass murder profitable for Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
And while there was no evidence that Groening was a killer, there was ample evidence that he was far from innocent. He described once hearing a baby cry as he stood on the train platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau after boxcars full of Hungarian Jews had been unloaded and sorted, either sent directly into slave labor or to the gas chambers. He watched as another SS guard grabbed the baby by a leg, dashed its head against a nearby truck and tossed the lifeless body into the truck.
Every individual is in the end responsible for upholding the basic ethics and values that are the foundation of our civilization.
Deirdre Berger, American Jewish Committee
At another point, he described standing outside the gas chambers, the infamous showers of the camp, with a guard and hearing the screams from inside. As he watched, the guard poured the deadly Zyklon B into a trap door. He described hearing the screams diminish as he was standing there, and understanding that those who’d been screaming were dying.
As the trial neared its end, Groening made a final statement about his actions.
“I did, through my activities, contribute to the functioning of the Auschwitz camp,” he said. “I’m aware of this. Auschwitz was a place that one should not have been part of. This is what we heard here, and I know it to be true. I honestly regret that I did not realize this earlier and act on it. I’m very sorry.”
Still, Groening at times was an unsatisfying defendant for the witnesses who came from around the world to confront him. He appeared to drift in and out of awareness, and witnesses could not always tell if their words actually registered with him or were simply recorded by the court to become part of Germany’s horrific Holocaust narrative.
Auschwitz was a place that one should not have been part of.
The prosecution, which had blocked out court dates through the end of 2015, appeared to rush to the verdict stage after Groening skipped a couple court sessions because of poor health or exhaustion.
Thomas Walther, an attorney representing some of the victims and relatives of victims who testified in this case, called the verdict “sadly, a very late step towards justice.”
He said it was important that a Nazi finally, “for the first time in half a century, apologized and sought forgiveness.”
But he also noted that this case made it clear that the German justice system had failed for decades, looking the other way with all but the most obvious perpetrators, rejecting cases against those like Groening who might not have directly murdered but still bore responsibility for what took place.
Then, in a year filled with symbolism, just before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and just after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the 1,000-plus camps where Hitler’s Germany murdered its victims, Groening was placed in the dock, representing the many who volunteered, in his case for the Waffen SS, to become the backbone of Nazi atrocities.
Prosecutors alleged Groening stood on the unloading ramps between May 16 and July 11 in 1944, as the Nazi “Final Solution” was applied to the Hungarian population. He was accused to have watched as 300,000 of the estimated 400,000 Hungarian Jews were marched to their deaths.
Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Nazi hunter, expects the way is now clear for others to be held accountable for serving like Groening.
“A year ago, there were 50-some people still alive who met this description and could be tried,” he said. “Today it’s dozens. But don’t be fooled: This is not the last Nazi trial. Groening matters because he was the first to admit he took part, that he was wrong, and to seek forgiveness. But there will be others.”
Berger, of the American Jewish Committee, said the verdict “demonstrates that there can be no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.”
“It is never too late, even 70 years later, to conduct trials against Holocaust perpetrators,” she said.
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews